What if unproductive work is simply a habit?

Why do we keep doing things at work that we know are wrong? We know we shouldn’t overuse email or have too many meetings; create slides with unreadable bullet points or waste time compiling status reports. We could all make long lists of things we should stop doing that are ineffective or just plain wrong.

So why don’t we change?

One (not-so-great) approach

I used to think that changing how people worked was an education problem. That I just needed to show people how inefficient they were and teach them how to improve things. So our team focused on creating all sorts of materials and tried to reach as many people as we could. Surely, once they saw a better way, people would change.


Over the last 20 years, the US government has tried that “better way” approach, trying to educate us about what to eat. But our consumption of the “bad foods” at the top of the pyramid (like refined sugars) has steadily increased anyway.

And we didn’t fare any better at work. We just created our own equivalent of the food pyramid efforts by focusing on education while inboxes and calendars got fatter and fatter.

Viewing work as a set of habits

The problem isn’t that people at work are stupid. It’s that much of what we do - at work and at home - is un-thinking. Much of what we do is a set of habits.

In Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”, he cites a study that “found more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.” And he goes on to show how habits “shape our lives far more than we realize - they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” provides a neurological explanation for this. Simply put, our brain favors doing things that require less cognitive effort.

“...if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.”

With repetition, effort decreases over time as the brain changes and the activity becomes easier, more automatic, and eventually becomes a habit. Changing that habit - acquiring a new skill or behavior - requires effort which the brain has a natural aversion to.

It’s not just smoking and eating that become hard-to-change habits. It’s our use of email and Powerpoint. It’s the way we schedule and run meetings. It’s “the way things are” at work.

Some surprises

The good news is that we’re starting to better understand how habits form and how to change them. Duhigg quotes a developer of habit reversal training:  “...once you’re aware of how your habit works, once you recognize the cues and rewards, you’re halfway to changing it...It seems like it should be more complex. The truth is, the brain can be reprogrammed. You just have to be deliberate about it.” It’s certainly not simple, but recently there has been a lot of research and new insights into changing habits.

Now, for example, we know why the food pyramid didn’t change how much people eat and we’ve discovered what will: smaller containers.

In “Switch: How to change things when change is hard”, Chip and Dan Heath open with a story of a popcorn study run by the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. In the study, moviegoers are given, for free, medium and large buckets of popcorn. Both buckets were too big for individuals to finish and the popcorn was stale (“one moviegoer compared it to styrofoam packing peanuts”) so that people weren’t eating it for pleasure. Yet people with the larger buckets ate 53% more popcorn.

They re-ran many variations of the experiment and each time the results were the same: “People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period.”

Applying this to your firm

It’s far easier to change the size of a popcorn container than to teach people to think differently about food. And so by viewing work as a set of habits, and applying the recent research, we can open up a whole new set of possibilities for improving what we do every day.

Next week, I’ll write about how changing one particular keystone habit at work just might change everything.